According to the official history, the nickname "The Zoo" started with a university official, before anyone ever lived in the building. The existing dorms all blended with the traditional sandstone of most older buildings at the University of Western Ontario. Saugeen-Maitland Hall, which opened in 1969, was the first to look like a housing project, and its stark rooms were likened to cages for animals. Of course, as the largest co-ed dorm in Canada and one of the largest in North America, opening at a time when co-ed dorms were not yet the norm, the nickname quickly took on other associations. The urban legend claiming that David Letterman once noted it in a top ten list of the best places to get laid in North America persists1. Western itself, in London, Ontario, has at times had a reputation as a party university. The administration has tried to fight that image. At one point, they banned "Zoo" from any Saugeen and U.W.O. paraphernalia, and engaged in a much-ridiculed, short-lived effort to re-nickname the building "the 'Geen." Attempts to limit the use of the nickname continue.
In 2005, the residence and its reputation entered internet lore when a first-year student performed a striptease for an acquaintance's birthday.
The guys had wanted a stripper. Accounts vary: the girl either volunteered as a favor or received a fee2. In any case, the dark-haired, smiling girl danced in a dorm room, stripping from a masquerade party nurse outfit down to her jewelry. At least one other female was present in the room3. This might have developed into nothing more than a campus rumor, but digital images were taken, and found their way online and into e-mail forwards.
It's not difficult to find nude imagery online, but this particular set of photographs drew a bewildering degree of interest. How many pr0n spam come-ons promise hot naked co-eds, or similar fantasies? Apparently, an actual female university student stripping for her dorm-mates was irresistible to that audience. How many moralistic stories make the rounds about those wild college kids? Here they were, in the flesh. Weeks later, a google hunt for "Saugeen Stripper" received over 16,000 distinct hits, and some photo-bearing sites had logged hundreds of thousands of visits.
The media across Canada picked up the story, The Smoking Gun took note, and Inside Edition visited campus to elicit student responses. Wikipedia debated whether or not the Saugeen Stripper really deserved her own entry. The saga paralleled an incident in Degrassi: The Next Generation's 2005/06 season. In one episode, high school junior Manny Santos bares her breasts for a camcorder while drunk, only to find images e-mailed to fellow students and posted online.4
The university investigated. The young woman confirmed that she had not been coerced, and that she knew photographs were being taken. Indeed, in some images she clearly looks into the camera. It's less certain whether she knew the photos would be posted for the world’s gaze.5 As the people involved violated no laws, administration could do little. Susan Grindrod, vice-president of university housing said:
We certainly regret this has happened; it's not something the university condones and we are very disappointed in these students, but rooms in residence are considered to be students' homes, and what goes on between consenting adults in the privacy of their homes is considered to be their business.... What's different in this case is that these pictures are going all over the world. With the Internet and personal blogs, pictures can be circulated very quickly, and I'm not sure how we would regulate students' blogs and websites even if we wanted to.
(quoted in Brown)
As with the case of the Star Wars Kid, the Saugeen Stripper may have less to say about changing mores than the changing reality created by technology.
1. The story has been attached to many Canadian dormitories. The first problem is that Letterman’s lists always involve humorous items; the name of a residence with which few in his audience would be familiar would hardly elicit laughs. However, doubt can be cleared with reasonable certainty. In 1988, when the story spread about Bates Hall at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, the student newspaper, The Silhouette, contacted Letterman’s people. They assert that no such list has ever existed, nor has a Canadian students’ residence served as a punch line. Since the Saugeen Stripper Incident, however, the story has taken on a web life of its own with reference to Saugeen, and I have heard it repeated locally by people who swear they saw the broadcast in question-- though no one anywhere seems to have it recorded. An alternate version of the legend claims that the list appeared in Playboy-- though no one ever seems to have the issue in question.
Update: In 2011, half a decade after the Saugeen Stripper incident, Playboy cited the university (not the residence) as one of the top party schools. The Stripper may have played some role in bringing an urban legend to a kind of life.
2. Forty dollars gets repeated often, and I have heard as high as $100.00. None of these figures can be supported by a reliable source.
3. Research for this article compelled me to look at the photos.
4. This makes a great Canuck connection, but we can rule out influence. The episode in question aired around the same time the Saugeen Stripper was performing, and it seems that one could not have inspired the other.
5. I attended Western, years ago. I live down the street from it now. I also lived (for a time) in Saugeen-Maitland Hall, and arguably in wilder times, when regulations regarding residence parties were looser. In any case, a female friend of mine had nude Polaroids of herself and a group of friends, skinny dipping on a camping trip, posted to the bulletin board in her room. They always struck me as somehow very innocent. I think someone would be a good deal more careful about displaying such images in the age of easy digitization and the world wide web.
Louise Brown. "Students striptease posted online." Toronto Star December 13, 2005.
Ian Gillespie. "Privacy Disappears Online." .The London Free Press February 5, 2006.
John Herbert. "UWO Residence Striptease Online." The London Free Press. December 14, 2005.
"Saugeen-Maitland Hall." Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saugeen-Maitland_Hall
"Talk: Saugeen Stripper." Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Saugeen_Stripper
Private conversations, London, Ontario.